Evacuation, Cats, and Fire, Pt. 2

For those of you who don’t know Palo Alto, it’s very white, upper middle-class, and wealthy. The Airbnb was not as advertised. Yes, it was 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, but it was an apartment, not a house, and both the plumber and the electrician should have lost their licenses. However, I will say the manager was very nice, did not flinch at the number of cats, and gave us absolutely no trouble even when we pointed out one of the toilets sprayed water on the floor when flushed. I ended up with my three cats in the biggest bedroom and Kay had the smaller bedroom, and the kitchen/living room for hers. Mike had taken her barn cat home with him, since the barn cat hates all other cats and fights to the death. He’s fine with people. So with my three and Kay’s remaining five, we were all crammed in with eight disoriented cats. Of Kay’s cats (keep up, there may be a test), two were purebred Maine Coons, two were elderly litter mates with medical issues, and one was a perfectly lovely large rescue male tabby called Kittyboy.

The third and smallest bedroom ended up being Mingo’s because he marched out into the living room and was confronted by the two Coons, both of whom were bigger than he was, what a shock for him, and Kittyboy, who was roughly the same size. So he took refuge under the third bed, came out for food and occasional territorial disputes. I will say, during this entire time, no one bit anyone else. Not even me and Kay. There was, however, a certain amount of howling in the night. Squeaky, to my surprise, had no problem with strange cats. He wandered everywhere and no one attacked him. Sophie the Tiny Cat spent most of her time either under my bed or on it, but she was fascinated with Tommy, the male Maine Coon, who was attracted by the window in my bedroom. No idea why, but he’d jump up on the windowsill and Sophie would attempt to copy him. Tommy is about three times her size so she had to do creative scrambling to get up there.

We’d shop for supplies during the day and meet Mike for dinner at night. Because of Covid, the main drag of University Avenue was closed to cars and restaurants had their tables in the street. We’d have lovely exotic food served by attentive waitstaff, while the air was smoky from the two huge fires to the east and west and helicopters droned overhead. Welcome to the end of the world, would you like another glass of wine? Then we’d walk back to the Airbnb and clean up the puddle of territorial urine in front of Ming’s bedroom. We suspected Kittyboy but we never caught him in the act.

Every day at 3 pm CalFire would put out a summary form on fire containment, evacuation zones, and eventually “repopulation”, i.e., when they let people back in. At 7 am and 6 pm there would be a video news conference. We structured our day around these, hoping for good news. Mercifully, although both Kay and I broke down in tears and despair several times, we managed to stagger these so that one of us could comfort the other. God  knows what would have happened if we’d both broken down simultaneously.

I’m not sure when I heard that my house had survived, but it was either the first or the second day of the Airbnb. Several of my neighbors had defied the evacuation order and stayed to fight the fire on the street. And a good thing they did, since the fire crews at the beginning were overwhelmed and severely understaffed and under-resourced. I found out weeks later a combination of local fire fighters, volunteers, and neighbors made a stand in front of my house, managing to save it, the two houses behind it, and one house on the cross street. The house across the street from me burned to the ground and the fire came within twenty feet of my driveway. Fourteen houses on the cross street burned down.

Let me say right now (and I have been saying for weeks), I have no idea why I was lucky. It’s certainly not due to my saintly character or reservoir of good Karma, nor do I feel I “deserve” this. It happened. I was incredibly fortunate. Other people weren’t.

Kay’s house, although in a mandatory evacuation zone, was outside the fire perimeter. By about half a mile. Which was important and so was all the acreage of defensible space she’d created by compulsive grass mowing and brush removal. Which I had teased her about and did I feel like an idiot? She also had a friendly relationship with a local property manager who’d stayed behind to protect his client’s houses, leading to this exchange via text:

PM: I have some extra fire retardant. Do you want me to spray your house?

Kay: Yes PLEASE.

PM: It may alter the paint color.

Kay: SPRAY THE GODDAMN HOUSE!

He sent her a legal liability release to sign. Obviously, the basic elements of the world are earth, air, water, fire, and lawyers.

We’d contracted for a week at the Airbnb. After about four days it was clear we’d be refugees longer, so we added another five days. On the eighth day, Kay checked her phone for the 3 pm CalFire notice and let out a shriek: “Pescadero’s open! We can go back!”

Never have two women packed so fast. We were out of there in under two hours, which included packing cats into carriers, stuffing all the food and extra supplies into cartons, loading it all into the truck, Mike’s SUV (including barn cat), and my car. We also cleaned the Airbnb and we must have done a good job: they refunded the money for the unused days.

So we caravanned north, west, and south around the still burning fire to Pescadero and Kay and her cats were home. I was not.

Evacuation, Cats, and Fire, Pt. 1

In theory, if I was a dedicated writer,  I’d have been doing day-to-day posts on the experience of mandatory emergency evacuation, dragging the cats from pillar to post to friends to airbnbs and my deteriorating emotional state. Obviously I’m not a dedicated writer. So it goes.

This fire was started by multiple lightening strikes. I saw the storm from my deck; it had been incredibly hot and airless for days, so when the power went out at 3 am I went on the deck to enjoy the wind and the light show. It was exhilarating. The next day the reports of fires in Big Basin Park and Butano were confusing: they were extinguished, they were spreading, there was one up on China Grade Road. Rumor of evacuation started to spread and I made a very tentative list of what to take with me.

It was very detailed as to cat supplies, then it sort of tailed off into ‘clothes, meds, computer…’. I’d have been mad not to have thought about this before, so I knew what I had to take. It was the other stuff that flummoxed me. Which books, photos, art, memorabilia to take with me? I couldn’t decide, so I hoped for a false alarm.

My next door neighbors were tenants; people who’d never lived in the mountains before. They texted me they were on their way to San Francisco and would be back that evening. If anything unlikely happened could I rescue their two cats? Camille and Henry, if you’re reading this, sorry, but I was annoyed when you couldn’t tell me where the second carrier was — I’d never met your cats and I hoped I wouldn’t have to chase two frightened cats all over your house to stuff them into a single carrier while a wall of flame was bearing down on my house.

As it turned out, they were the ones who passed me the evacuation order via text from their phone. They were rushing back and they did make it in time to load their own cats. I still had no phone or text alerts from CalFire or any authority, but I decided to take the newer and better car over the elderly rickety station wagon and I started to pack.

Sophie the Tiny Cat flees from being picked up, so I snuck up on her and stuffed her into her carrier first. The other two were no problem. I packed the cats in the back seat and loaded cat supplies, my suitcase, and miscellaneous stuff into the trunk. Last in was my new desktop Mac mini, which I’d bought instead of a laptop because I never travel, and believe me I appreciated the irony. I took all the records from a genealogy project but no insurance papers or house title stuff because all that’s online now. And I took two sentimental photos because I knew they weren’t digitized anywhere. When I packed my suitcase I flashed back to fifty years ago, when I packed for a weekend and ended up (long sad story I will never tell) living out it for five months. And that memory stayed with me.

By then it was dark. I drove down the access highway into town, one of a long line of fleeing residents. Central Boulder Creek hadn’t been ordered to evacuate yet — they would be soon — so all the lights were on and the streets were busy. My area was shunted south to Santa Cruz; the northern part of the valley was evacuated to Santa Clara County.

I did have an emergency evacuation bolthole. My friend Kay has a large house in Pescadero, on the Pacific Coast. I’d called her, but she told me she was being ordered to evacuate also, and I had visions of spending a night in my car with three very unhappy cats. I realized I’d forgotten my sleeping bag. Somewhere in there I got a call from my friend Lisa, who is Kevin-the-contractor’s partner, and who said, simply, “Come here. Kevin’s already building a temporary catio out in the yard.”

I cannot tell you the kindness I received from friends, casual acquaintances, and total strangers during what turned out to be a long, long saga. I was constantly stunned by offers of shelter, money, and help. My hairdresser offered me and the cats shelter, and she wasn’t the only one.

That first night I dumped the cats on Kevin and Lisa, putting the poor frightened animals in a large secure pen outside. Kevin and Lisa have a tiny house with four cats of their own, and Kevin found me a miraculous hotel room in a town crammed with refugees. I could have stayed with them but Kevin insisted he’d sleep in his toolshed, so I grabbed the hotel room. I had to take Xanax to sleep and when I checked my car in the hotel lot in the morning it was covered with an inch of black crumbly ash. By then I’d thought to go further south to the evacuation center at the Watsonville Fairgrounds even though I didn’t want, absolutely didn’t want, to put the cats in any sort of shelter. I called Kay, to see how she and her seven cats were doing, and to my surprise she’d gone back home. “Come here. It’s fine.”

I had to drive around four sides of what was an enormous fire. I found out much later the fire had grown to 44,000 acres overnight. So I drove north-east, north, west to the coast, and south down the coast to Pescadero. Kay and her friend Mike had spent the night in her truck with all cats in carriers, parked in the evacuation center parking lot in Pescadero. The evacuation center wasn’t organized yet and nor were the sheriff’s officers, because when Kay woke up after a miserable night she was able to drive her truck back to her property without passing through a roadblock. As was I.

We had an unhappy day, because one of Kay’s elderly cats was terminally ill, her vet was out of town, and poor Graybar had to be put to sleep. Kay was miserable and exhausted, so she went to sleep early. I sat on the deck in the dark and looked toward the mountain ridge.

I could see the fire. There were two large tongues of flame cresting the ridge, within five miles of where I was sitting. You know that part of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo sees the Eye of Sauron glaring red on the ridge of the valley of Rivendell? Exactly like that. I felt I could have lived without this in real life.

The next day emergency vehicles were blaring loudspeakers on the road, warning residents to prepare to leave. Kay was determined not to spend another night in her truck; I had no idea where to go if she left, perhaps to an evacuation center? We were all miserable and indecisive, but Kay said to me, in the beginning of a long series of charitable acts, that I would stay with her, we’d take care of all our cats together, and we’d find some place to go. If we went. The first problem was Where, and after we buried poor Graybar, Kay contacted a friend who dealt with Airbnb reservations all the time. In fifteen minutes, in a moneyed miracle, Kay had booked a three bedroom, three bath place in Palo Alto for a week. They took cats. (I’m not sure we mentioned how many. I didn’t ask.)

So I packed my frightened, disoriented cats again and Kay attempted to pack hers. This turned into a long, drawn out chase sequence since one cat refused to be caught for about three hours, and we were all stressed even more when we finally convoyed back north, east, and south again to Palo Alto. This time we passed through a police roadblock. We were out.